The City of Charon seemed like little more than a blur. It was weird, after having gotten so immersed in this reality, but I realized it didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter as much as Alex. A part of me even convinced myself that maybe I didn’t need to say goodbye to Raine. What was the point in saying goodbye to a computer program?
I got attached too easily. And even when I tried to push people away, somehow, they always ended up back in my life.
I walked straight into The Thorny Sword, not paying attention to the surroundings.
As I entered The Thorny Sword, I couldn’t help but noticed my surroundings.
Something had changed.
There was still the bartender who hated me, of course. There were Raine and the kid, sitting by the bar.
But there was something in the air here — two guards stood at the other end of The Thorn Sword. I couldn’t see who they were protecting, presumably because the person was sitting down, and my view was blocked by the bar itself. Still, I had a pretty good guess.
Raine smiled when she saw me. I couldn’t smile back. I knew what had to be done.
“Hey, Hero,” Raine said as I approached the bar. “You what what you had to do?”
“Not quite,” I said.
Couldn’t look at her, couldn’t look at the kid. Couldn’t bear the thought of what a life with them might’ve been like.
I walked past the bar. Feasted my eyes on The Thorn Sage, who sat there flanked by two guards.
“Well, well,” The Thorn Sage said, leaning back in his chair and smiling, his plate of chicken only half-eaten. “The Hero with the Lightning Eyes returns.”
I didn’t feel the need to talk to him. Instead I unsheathed my sword, striking one of the Thorn Guards.
1,000 / 1,000 HP. The green letters floated above his head.
“You can’t hurt them,” The Thorn Sage smirked. “They can, however, hurt you.”
One of the guards unsheathed his sword and thrust it in my direction.
I lost 10% of my HP and stumbled backwards.
“I almost can’t believe such impudence. Impotence, too,” The Thorn Sage said. His guard took a step forward.
I looked up at where the wine glasses were hanging. A sword hung there, too.
“We can’t really kill you, of course,” The Thorn Sage said. The guard, sensing his liege’s desire to monologue, stayed back. “But we can’t have Heroes thinking they can attack me. When you respawn, Hero, I’ll make sure one of my guards kill you. Every time you respawn, he’ll kill you. He’ll kill you again and again, until you’re well and truly dead!” The Thorn Sage cackled. “You can kill him, now.”
As the guard approached, I sheathed my sword. Grabbed the sword hanging from the wine rack. Knicked my hand on the blade, losing 2% HP.
But I also took the sword off the hook. Grabbed the pommel of it with my other hand and pointed it at the guard.
“Doesn’t matter what sword you use, Hero. You can’t hurt my guard!”
The Thorn Sage might’ve been right, but the sword was there for a reason. I believed in Alex.
The guard swung his sword at me. I held my sword in place to block it.
His sword broke; I smiled.
In the brief moment that he stood there dumbfounded, I swung my sword at his neck. It cleaved through the metal armor, lobbing his head off.
The other guard went down even more quickly, meaning it was just me and The Thorn Sage.
His eyes had widened in surprise. But in a showy display, he went back to eating his chicken.
He wasn’t afraid? Fine, I didn’t need him to be.
I took my sword and placed the flat of its blade under his chin. A bit of grease got onto it. He swallowed the bit of chicken.
I tried pushing the tip of the blade into his Adam’s Apple, but it wouldn’t go in.
Alex, give me strength. The thought gave me hope. No way Alex would give me an impossible task.
“I’ll confess, I’m a bit surprised you managed to do away with my guards. They’ll respawn soon enough, of course, but it is surprising!” With his pale white thumb and pointer finger, he grabbed my blade. He moved it away from his neck. “That said, you certainly don’t expect to be able to kill me, do you?”
As The Thorn Sage spoke, I felt an energy well up in my eyes.
“Why are you smiling?” The Thorn Sage asked. “It’s like I was trying to tell you, Hero. You can’t kill me. I don’t even have HP. This world wasn’t made for my death! A part of me wishes it were! Ha, I wish I’d never met the Rose Sage. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t gotten so attached. Sometimes–”
“Thorn Sage?” I said. “You talk too much.”
My eyes crackled with power. The lightning ripped through them, and I was blinded.
Screaming. Darkness. I felt drained.
Was he dead? No clue.
I stumbled. Tripped over something. Hit my head.
Everything hurt, but eve in the pitch black darkness, a message box appeared.
“THANK YOU, CHRIS. YOU COMPLETED THE MISSION. IN THE NEXT MESSAGE YOU’LL FIND MY ADDRESS. GO THERE, AND WE CAN BE TOGETHER AGAIN.”
Once I’d read that message, a new one popped up, telling me where Alex was located.
I smiled. She and I would be together again.
Alex was holed up in some warehouse roughly three hours away from me. My smart car took me all the way there, and a part of me wished I could drive myself.
It made me feel lonely, sitting in the car with nothing to do. No hands on the wheels — nothing tactile, nothing physical. Just a long, lonely drive.
And yet for all the tedium, my heart wouldn’t stop racing.
Alex. I remember the way her hair smelled after long showers. I remember her nails, always with the black paint at least a little chipped. I remembered all the good times we had together. I tried to forget the bad.
It felt like forever, but remembering her made the eternity bearable.
The car too me through an empty-looking area I’d never been to before. Some industrial park with a lot of buildings but little movement. In fact, I didn’t see a single human being in the area.
The car parked itself, so I got out. There was one other car in the parking lot.
It was slow-going with the cane, but I made it to the nearest warehouse soon enough. I entered through the old, rusty door, which creaked as I opened it.
There weren’t any fluorescent lights on when I entered. Instead the light was a dark red. It wasn’t coming from the ceiling, and its purpose couldn’t have been for illumination since it didn’t help me see anything. Instead it was more like a glow.
I heard the human of the datapulse, which sounded like a hundred fans whirring simultaneously.
The warehouse was artificially cold, much colder than it’d been outside in the sun.
I squinted, trying to see into the red light. All I saw were shadows, darkness, and the red.
The sound of a wheel spinning. I moved towards it. Step by step, carefully as my heart stormed in my chest.
I looked directly at the source of the wheel-spinning noise. It was hard to see, but I could just barely make out the rat spinning in its cage, electrodes attached to its head. I made my way forward, clutching things in the nearly-blinding red light.
More cages surrounded me, each filled with weird critters: iguanas, spiders, cockroaches. They all had the telltale nodes strapped to their heads.
I made my way forward, until I bumped into something.
Felt clammy, like human skin. A wrist.
I began feeling around. Found wires, which led up to a VR headset.
I took it off.
The human figure coughed in the darkness, mumbling.
I recognized her voice. It was Alex.